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Secondary authorship : aesthetics and the idea of mass culture in the United States, 1835-1866 McAlister, Sean


My dissertation examines popular authorship in the antebellum United States. Following the print explosion of the 1830s, American authors found themselves participating in a slowly emerging mass print culture. While most scholars agree that massification proper did not characterize the production, circulation, and consumption of popular literature until after the Civil War, I argue that the idea of mass culture emerged in the antebellum decades. The idea that reading could be a mass-scale phenomenon provoked many antebellum authors to attend to the material effects of reading, while their relative freedom from institutional constraints enabled these same authors a degree of pre-culture industrial experimentation that was unique to the antebellum period. The title of my dissertation, “Secondary Authorship,” refers to a loss of confidence in the idea of authorship as origination; authorship in antebellum America, I argue, was a circular game of observing the effects of writing and experimenting in their causes. My first chapter analyzes Edgar Allan Poe’s recasting of Kantian disinterest in terms of mass interest in his short tale “Berenice.” In my second chapter, I extend Poe’s theory of interest to a consideration of antebellum city mysteries fiction, and, in particular, to the reformist poetics of George Lippard’s The Quaker City. My third chapter reads Herman Melville’s Pierre; or, the Ambiguities as ambivalent about its participation in mass reading. Finally, my fourth chapter examines the “minor” relation to Emersonian Transcendentalism that Louisa May Alcott constructs in her novel Moods. In the course of my analyses of antebellum fiction, I make literary critical use of systems theory, Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic theory, American Pragmatist philosophy, and the affect theories of Silvan Tomkins.

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